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Should I See a Doctor About My Cut or Scrape?

Your Cut or Scrape May Need Stitches, Antibiotics or a Tetanus Shot

By Nancy Larson

Updated March 17, 2009

(LifeWire) - Should you see a doctor about your cut or scrape? Maybe you tripped over your 4-year-old's LEGO castle and cut yourself as you fell. Or perhaps that thumbtack you stepped on looked dirty and you can't remember when you last had a tetanus shot. How do you know when it's time to seek professional medical care?

Shape, Bleeding, Location, Risk of Infection and Tetanus Shot Status Determine Need for a Doctor

Whether you should see a doctor about a cut or other skin injury depends on its shape, severity, location and risk of infection, and whether medical care could lessen scarring or improve healing. You should see a doctor immediately if any of the following are factors with your wound:

  • The shape of the wound is jagged.
  • The injury is located on your face.
  • The edges of the wound are gaping open.
  • The injured area contains embedded dirt.
  • Blood is spurting out or the bleeding won't stop after 10 minutes of direct pressure.
  • It's been 5 years or more since you've had a tetanus shot.

After examining the wound, your doctor may clean it and prescribe oral antibiotics. He will also determine whether or not you need stitches to help the wound heal faster and leave less of a visible scar. Stitches are usually removed after 3 days (if located on the face) up to 14 days (in high-stress locations like elbows). Alternatives to stitches include adhesive tape, staples or liquid skin adhesives that work like glue. The liquid adhesives don't need to be removed.

If you didn't have a three-shot series for tetanus, also known as lockjaw, as a child (or later) -- or if you haven't had a booster in the past 10 years -- now's the time to get caught up, either by having that three-shot series or the needed booster. For maximum effectiveness, shots should be given within 1 to 3 days of an injury. If your wound is serious, your doctor may recommend a booster even if you've had one between 5 and 10 years ago.  However, getting a tetanus shot more frequently than every 5 years could result in an allergy to the vaccine, and the vaccine might no longer protect you.

While many people believe it's the rust on an object that leads to tetanus, it's actually the dirt that carries most of the risk.

You Didn't Go the Doctor at First, but Now You Should

If you elect not to see a doctor, be sure to clean the wound thoroughly at home. Sometimes, even if you didn't need to seek medical help immediately after your injury, you may still need a doctor's care. For example, if you experience any of the following after a few days of home treatment, you should contact a doctor:

  • Swelling, pain or redness around the wound
  • Red streaks visible near the injury, pointing toward the heart
  • Pus discharging from the wound or visible in it
  • Numbness in the area around the injury
  • Having a temperature over 100 F

If you notice any of these symptoms but can't schedule a doctor's appointment that day, you should go to the emergency room.

Sources:

"Cuts, Scrapes and Stitches: Caring for Wounds." familydoctor.org. Dec. 2006. American Academy of Family Physicians. 12 Feb. 2009 <http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/healthy/firstaid/after-injury/041.html>.



Porter, Sandy J. "Sutures." stvincent.org. 2006. St. Vincent's Indianapolis Hospital. 12 Feb. 2009 <http://www.stvincent.org/NR/rdonlyres/11288931-5FEF-424F-9E6F-2B6439A7D0E4/0/sutures.pdf>.



"Tetanus." nlm.nih.gov. 17 Jun. 2008. National Institutes of Health. 12 Feb. 2009 <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000615.htm>.



"Tetanus Vaccine." med.umich.edu. 7 Nov. 2005. University of Michigan. 12 Feb. 2009 <http://www.med.umich.edu/1libr/aha/aha_tetanusv_crs.htm>.



"Wound (Skin) Infection." med.umich.edu. 2 Mar. 2006. University of Michigan. 24 Feb. 2009 <http://www.med.umich.edu/1libr/pa/pa_infectio_hhg.htm>.


LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Nancy Larson is a St. Louis-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in dozens of local and national print and online publications including CNN.com, The Weather Channel, Health magazine and The Advocate.

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